Tunisian Travels, Part III
Volume 21 Issue 18 2013-05-17
Recently Wanda Waterman spent several weeks in Tunisia, where she crossed half the country, visited several cities and villages, and stayed with a traditional Tunisian family. This travelogue series chronicles her adventures and experiences in the Maghreb. Read the first part of the series here and the second part, here.
“To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.”
“The World is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.”
The arms of the many-roomed El Mouradi hotel in the seaside resort town of Hammamet embrace a complex of shower stalls and changing rooms, peanut-shaped swimming pools, and white plastic lounge chairs. European tourists strip down to recline and tan, but rarely swim. I slide into a pool and after an accidental taste realize that the water is treated with salt, not chlorine. I smile; not only are my good bacteria preserved, it’s easier to float.
Dining is a self-service buffet. The food in the hotel is fresh and varied, with plenty of salads and fruits as well as some of the better-known native dishes—tajine, couscous with mutton, and briks—and local food items like olives, flatbread, halva, and dates still on their twigs. However, the cuisine lacks the robust spectrum of flavours found in more private kitchens.
As in most Tunisian cities there are many English signs, even though English is not widely spoken or understood here and the bulk of the foreigners appear to be from continental Europe and a few Gulf countries. As in Japan some of these signs are not always grammatically correct, but the only truly unfortunate mistake I see is a sign over a pizza shop in Hammamet proudly emblazoned with “Pecker’s Pizza.” Fortunately, the Tunisians I meet have no idea.
We visit the souk (marketplace) in nearby Nabeul, an important producer of North African pottery, and stroll through scores of streetside shops that sell designer knock-offs, American cartoon merchandising, and the lovely, flowing, jewel-toned garments, sheer, sequined, and embroidered, worn by the more traditional Tunisian women and girls. There are also gorgeous locally made rugs, ceramics, and metals at prices deemed steep by local standards but very reasonable by ours.
Carthageland, an amusement park behind the hotel, is a Disneyesque tribute to Tunisian history, complete with concrete Hannibal’s elephants and cartoonlike Punic War veterans. There are rides and a small zoo with camels, lions, ostriches, foxes, and falcons. We see many young couples, the hennaed and tattooed hands of the women advertising their newlywed status.
The Limits of Propriety
On the beach a European woman with her husband and two children casually removes her bikini top, shakes out the sand, and puts it back on. My Tunisian friends don’t remark on this, but do object to Arab girls seen kissing their men on the mouth in public.
There’s one standard of behaviour for foreigners and another—quite different—for the local Muslim majority. But even within Tunisian society, with the unnerving exception of a few Islamists known to react angrily to displays perceived as threatening to Islam or to public decency, there’s tremendous tolerance for varying styles of dress. Occasionally I would hear an Arab, seeing an Arab girl dressed immodestly even by Western standards, say, Tch. I wish they wouldn’t dress like that; but the right to choose one’s own style of dress is generally respected.
Some older women, including my hostess, do not leave the house unless wrapped in a safsari, a large golden piece of cloth covering a woman’s head, shoulders, and body. I see other women in safsaris walking beside young girls in low-slung cigarette jeans and tight sweaters. Only about a third of the women I see wear headscarves, and I see no face veils.
I ask a young teenage girl if she wants to wear the hijab (headscarf) one day. She answers “Yes!” with alacrity. “At what age?” I ask, and she replies that she’ll probably start wearing it in her mid-20s. I wonder if she sees the hijab as something worn when one is ready to take on the responsibilities of religious and family life. On the other hand, this girl’s religious mother and several married aunts with children and careers don’t wear the hijab, yet aren’t subject to familial disapproval.
The men are respectful and polite. I’ve heard that foreign women who walk alone here are often subjected to unwanted attention, but this harassment consists mostly of polite flirtation and not the degree of rudeness women sometimes experience on North American city streets. I’m never alone on my many strolls through Tunisian towns, but I witness no disrespect except at the wedding dance. There, what looks like a foreign tourist—tall, blond, and swaggering—joins the women and gets a little cheeky with one of them. He’s soon sent sheepishly from the dance floor.
(To be concluded next week.)
Wanda also penned the poems for the artist book They Tell My Tale to Children Now to Help Them to be Good, a collection of meditations on fairy tales, illustrated by artist Susan Malmstrom.
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